COVID-19 vaccine
COVID-19 vaccine iStock

Outgoing deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, Professor Itamar Grotto, spoke with Radio 103FM on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the likelihood of several Covid-19 vaccines becoming available to the Israeli public in the near future. Professor Grotto recently announced his resignation from the Health Ministry, after nearly 13 years in his current position, culminating in the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus.

Grotto began by recalling the outbreak of the epidemic early this year, when health professionals were as yet unclear as to the nature of the new virus and how best to treat those suffering from serious complications.

“During January, there was an international gathering of health experts regarding ways in which to address a health emergency,” he related. “It was then that the first reports started to come in about ‘something new’ going on in China, and I picked up the phone to the director-general of the World Health Organization and asked him for his opinion. He told me that not much was known yet, and added that the Chinese had been doing their best to cover things up.”

Grotto stressed that by now, a lot more is known about the coronavirus and ways in which to treat hospitalized patients. “We had a lot of learning to do,” he said, “and the truth is that there’s still a lot more we need to learn – especially with regard to immunity, such as whether infection confers long-term or short-term protection, and related issues.”

Grotto was asked for his opinion on when the first batch of vaccines would arrive in Israel, and replied: “If everything goes according to plan, and huge quantities are manufactured and delivered, I believe that the first batch of vaccines will arrive here during the first few months of 2021.” He cautioned, however, that only small quantities would be arriving at first, perhaps twenty or thirty thousand.

Professor Grotto added that the Israeli authorities may choose not to rely solely on FDA approval, if and when it is given. “We will be examining all the data ourselves,” he said, “but that won’t delay matters much – it’s a question of another week to ten days.”

Asked how many people he thinks will be willing to be vaccinated, he responded with caution. “We have no precise estimates – we can make a guess based on surveys, but it’s very hard to derive accurate results from surveys when the question is still theoretical. It’s a bit like asking people who they’ll vote for in an election that hasn’t been called yet,” he suggested, noting that the first batch of vaccines will be designated for those at high risk. “I imagine that those who know they are vulnerable to coronavirus will be more willing to get vaccinated,” he said, “because people tend to want to be protected from known dangers.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the government’s coronavirus project manager, Prof. Nachman Ash, discussed the possibility of a third nationwide lockdown if cases continue to rise, and Grotto was asked to comment on this eventuality. “In my opinion, it’s too early to be talking about another lockdown – we simply don’t know yet. Admittedly we are seeing a rise in the number of infections, but on the other hand, we know a lot more today about identifying clusters, and we are better able to stop clusters from spreading. That’s why it’s basically impossible to predict where the current increase in confirmed cases will lead.”

With rumors abounding regarding the timing and length of a possible lockdown, Grotto commented that, “I think that at this point, it’s premature to be talking about a lockdown during Hanukkah [i.e. next week], but a few weeks later, at the end of December or the beginning of January, it’s a distinct possibility. But I hope very much that it won’t be necessary,” he concluded.

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